By Grant McAuley

After nearly two months of speculation Major League Baseball dropped the hammer on the Atlanta Braves on Tuesday, levying heavy penalties on the team for a litany of infractions in both the international market and the amateur draft.

Additionally, Commissioner Rob Manfred announced that former Atlanta general manager John Coppolella has been banned for life while former international scouting director Gordon Blakeley has received a one-year ban.

The punishment is unprecedented and includes the loss of more than a dozen prospects, including highly-touted infielder Kevin Maitan. The players in question have been declared free agents after baseball’s investigation into Atlanta’s dealings revealed the club routinely skirted the rules for signing international amateur talents.

The 13 players Atlanta lost include Maitan, Ji Hwan Bae, Abrahan Gutierrez, Yunior Severino. Juan Contreras. Yefri del Rosario, Yenci Peña, Livan Soto. Juan Carlos Negret, Brandol Mezquita, Angel Rojas, Antonio Sucre and Guillermo Zuniga. The Braves also face severe restrictions on signing any international prospects over the next three to four years. The league also confiscated Atlanta’s third round pick in the 2018 amateur draft after the investigation deemed the club offered improper benefits to 2017 second round pick Drew Waters.

The investigation concluded that Atlanta “bundled” prospects and redirected bonus money from one player to another in an attempt to circumvent MLB rules during the 2015 signing period. Had those signings been done by the book it would have put the Braves over their allotment of bonus pool money for that period and therefore should have resulted in spending restrictions which would have precluded the Braves from breaking the bank in 2016.

Maitan and Gutierrez were the top names in Atlanta’s 2016 signing class, which came at a reported cost of over $13 million. That number may have been significantly higher, with David O’Brien of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporting the club may have spent in excess of $4 million more – pushing the actual total to at least $17 million. By spending well over the annual $4-6 million hard cap each team is given during an international signing period, the Braves were placed in the “penalty box” and not allowed to sign any players for more than $300,000 for the following two periods (2017 and 2018). The league determined those spending restrictions happened a year later than they should have.

It’s worth noting that Atlanta’s actions took place around the same time the Red Sox were being punished with the loss of prospects for similar “bundling” practices. Of course the difference here is the scope. Atlanta went far beyond Boston’s violations, which were the first and only real precedent for how the league would approach handling the players involved in such incidents.

The prospects Atlanta lost will be allowed to keep their original signing bonuses, but will not become true free agents. Those players will instead go back into the international signing pool and any of the other 29 teams will be free to sign them. Waters, meanwhile, will remain with the organization.

Upon receiving the news of the sanctions handed down, the Braves issued a statement in which the club accepted the commissioner’s discipline, reaffirmed its commitment to restoring the faith of the fans and declined to make any further comment going forward.

The loss of Maitan, 17, is by far the biggest on the prospect front. The top player available in the 2016 international signing class, Maitan inked a $4.25 million deal with Atlanta that July. He made his stateside debut last summer, batting .241/.290/.340 in 42 games at the rookie ball level. Maitan is a switch-hitting shortstop out of Venezuela who has drawn comparisons to Miguel Cabrera. He was among Atlanta’s top 10 prospects and was recently ranked the No. 72 prospect in all of baseball by Baseball America.

Gutierrez, 17, was another of the high-profile signings in 2016. A power-hitting catching prospect who signed for a reported $3.5 million bonus. Like Maitan, a fellow Venezuelan, Gutierrez made his stateside debut this past summer. Additionally, Severino, 18, is an infielder from the Dominican Republic who signed for $1.9 million in that same group.

Bae, 18, is another notable loss. Atlanta signed the Korean-born shortstop in September. He was widely regarded as one of the best prospects to come out of the country in recent years and was projected to be the top pick in the KBO draft had he not signed with the Braves. The Bae acquisition seems to fall at or around the time MLB began its investigation into Atlanta’s perceived inconsistencies in the international market. Factoring in the team’s aforementioned hard cap of $300,000 for player signings and questions surround how the Braves got a player of Bae’s caliber to agree to such a deal. The league concluded that the team offered Bae extra-contractual compensation and therefore disapproved his agreement with the club, which had yet to become binding.

Commissioner Manfred also chastised the club for brokering a commitment from an agent for 14-year-old Dominican prospect Robert Puason in which he agreed to sign with Atlanta in 2019. The Braves are forbidden from signing Pauson in the future.

While the Braves currently remain in the “penalty box” regarding international signings, the future restrictions were also laid out in the commissioner’s statement:

“The Braves will be prohibited from signing any international player for more than $10,000 during the 2019-20 signing period, which is the first signing period in which the Braves are not subject to any signing restrictions under our rules; and the Braves’ international signing bonus pool for the 2020-21 signing period will be reduced by 50 percent.”

In addition to the sanctions, the club was dealt a significant blow to its front office structure. Coppolella and Blakeley were both forced to resign by the team on October 2, just one day after the regular season concluded. Despite reportedly being cleared by the league’s investigation, demoted former president of baseball operations John Hart announced his departure to “pursue other opportunities outside the organization” just three days after new general manager Alex Anthopoulos was hired. During the press conference to introduce the new GM, team chairman Terry McGuirk revealed that Hart had ceded complete control of baseball operations to Anthopoulos and would instead serve as a senior advisor. The timing of Hart’s resignation seems to line up with Braves officials learning that Coppolella would be receiving a lifetime ban. It would clearly not be a good look from a public relations standpoint for the Braves to have Coppolella’s direct supervisor remain on staff in any capacity in the wake of the sanctions. That likely hastened Hart’s exit at the behest of the team.

Manfred acknowledged the necessity of those departures and added the following regarding punishment to be handed out to other Atlanta front office officials:

“I intend to discipline other Braves’ International Baseball Operations employees who participated in the misconduct after the completion of our internal procedures. My staff will speak to the Players Association and officials in the Dominican Republic regarding appropriate consequences for the representatives of the players who intentionally participated in schemes to circumvent our rules, none of whom are certified by the Players Association.”

Atlanta has already turned its attention to putting its house back in order. The first order of business was hiring the executives who will lead a restructured front office. Anthopoulos will head that group. He was introduced in a press conference at SunTrust Park on November 13. With the cloud of the league’s investigation looming over his new club, Anthopoulos was keenly aware of the possible sanctions. That did not deter him from taking the reins of a Braves team that still has one of the best farm systems in baseball.

“Every club is going to have challenges, obstacles, things like that. This is one of them,” said Anthopoulos. “We’re going to deal with it. We’re going to handle it. We’re going to get through it.”

“We won’t be the first club that’s gone through some things,” said Anthopoulos. “Regardless of what happens, the Braves are going to be here. We’re going to be playing opening day. There’s still a lot of good things to be excited about and we’ll meet the challenges head on and get through them.”

Manfred shares that sentiment and believes the Braves will get back on course after what can only be described as a monumental misstep.

“The Braves cooperated throughout the investigation, which was conducted by MLB’s Department of Investigations. The senior Baseball Operations officials responsible for the misconduct are no longer employed by the Braves. I am confident that Terry McGuirk, John Schuerholz, Alex Anthopoulos and their staffs have and will put in place procedures to ensure that this type of conduct never occurs again and which will allow the Club to emerge from this difficult period as the strong and respected franchise that it has always been.”

Despite these recent losses, Atlanta still has arguably the best young talent in the game. Ronald Acuña leads a group that includes eight of the Top 100 prospects as ranked by Baseball America at midseason. Maitan would have made nine. Major League Baseball sent a clear message to all clubs with the harsh sanctions handed to the Braves, but still has work to do in order to truly clean up the international market. If the league has its way, the “Wild West” days abroad will become a thing of the past. MLB still has many miles to travel to make that a reality.

Grant McAuley covers the Braves and MLB for 92-9 The Game. You can subscribe to the “Around The Big Leagues” podcast on iTunes, SoundCloud and Stitcher. Follow Grant on Twitter.

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